Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

English Oceans (2014)


1. Shit Shots Count 2. When He’s Gone 3. Primer Coat 4. Pauline Hawkins 5. Made Up English Oceans 6. The Part Of Him 7. Hearing Jimmy Loud 8. ‘Til He’s Dead Or Rises 9. Hanging On 10. Natural Light 11. When Walter Went Crazy 12. First Air Of Autumn 13. Grand Canyon


Brace yourselves, people, because I’m about to talk about how a specific portion of DBT’s catalog is analogous to a specific portion of a classic rock band’s catalog again. Leanin’ on that old crutch again. Is it cliché to do this? You’ll have to tell me. I think the links critics sometimes make to older bands when they’re reviewing new artists are sometimes tenuous, but with DBT, it makes total sense to me because had they emerged in a different era, I truly believe they would be among the pantheon of revered classic rock icons. (I am now trying to picture what DBT would look like in the 70s, and it is glorious. Cooley was born to wear bellbottoms, half buttoned-up, chest hair-revealing silk shirts, and a Brawny paper towel man-esque stache).

Anyway, the classic rock band I’m thinking of is of course the inimitable Bon Jovi. Everyone thought they were done after Bounce, but then Have A Nice Day came out and was so mindblowing, it won every single Grammy available in the year of its release, spurred the formation of a major world religion, and caused everyone to literally crap their brains out their butts. And the world was never the same.

No, I’m kidding. I’m actually thinking of the Stones in the 70s. When am I not, right? But seriously, people were a little disappointed with the trifecta of Goat’s Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, and Black And Blue (proving that people are idiots, because Black And Blueis awesome) when they came out, as they seemed to indicate that the Stones were getting bloated and stale. Then they put out the rawer, leaner Some Girls, which completely silenced those critics (or at least silenced them until they put out Emotional Rescue two years later, which is understandable because that album has “Indian Girl” on it). Similarly, the DBT fan base wasn’t entirely thrilled with The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots (once again proving people are idiots, since Go-Go Boots is awesome), but has responded enthusiastically to the less polished, grimier version of the band on display on English Oceans.

So there you go. I guess English Oceans is DBT’s Some Girls. Their statement of purpose. Their return to their roots. Their… um, there like four or five other clichés that can go here and you know them all, so just plug in your favorite. Is it really, though? I dunno… like I said, I’ve always been a big Black And Blue fan, so although I accept that Some Girls represented a major reinvention for the Stones from a commercial and stylistic perspective, I reject the notion that it was this drastic upgrade in quality from their previous record. Likewise, Go-Go Boots is probably one of the least-loved DBT albums, but I really think it’s great. It’s got its flaws, for sure (which I surely ennumerated in my obscenely long review of the album, but who knows… shit, even I have trouble getting all the way through these things sometimes, which is why they’re filled with so many undetected typos. My bad), but so does English Oceans, if you ask me. However, there’s no question that the band instituted a pretty drastic revamp in sound and approach since their last album – well, drastic for them, anyway. They sound more like a garage rock band now than they have at any time since, geez, Alabama Ass Whuppin’, which can be attributed partially to the songwriting—there are definitely more rockers here than on Go-Go Boots, but more to the stripped-down arrangements and ramshackle production—complete with tape hiss, mic bleed, ugly first take guitar solos, and more—that arose from the down-and-dirty, get-in-get-out two-week period they spent making it. Basically, they did something bands as old as they are almost never do – dirty up their sound instead of clean it up.

The new sound is also a result of recent major lineup changes, by far DBT’s most significant since Jason joined the band. Shonna left the group in late 2011, and John Neff (who had begun dating Shonna… I guess she must have a thing for DBT’s third guitarists) followed suit about a year later, allowing the two of them to form their own band, Eye Candy, who aren’t very good but do have one catchy song about a donkey that I kinda like, and make petty, bitter comments about DBT on Facebook. Fuck ‘em. DBT replaced Shonna with the perpetually grinning, bowl cut-adorned Matt Patton, formerly of an awesome band from Tuscaloosa called the Dexateens, and, bravely, didn’t replace John Neff with anyone. Instead, Jay Gonzalez now pulls double duty on keys and guitar. Turns out that was about the smartest thing they could have done to cope with Neff’s departure, because if English Oceans and the shows DBT have played over the past year or so have proven anything, it’s that Jay Gonzalez is a fucking badass. You sure wouldn’t peg him for a member of Drive-By Truckers if you met him on the street—he’s Hispanic, originally from New York, and probably even shorter than Dustin Pedrioia—but he kills it on this album. He’s not a flashy keyboardist, and other than the sobeirng, feedback drenched piano interlude in “Pauline Hawkins”—one of the album’s most powerful moments—he prefers to add perfect, subtle textures to songs that elevate them to another level, like that organ in the background of “Made Up English Oceans” or the simple ascending and descending piano snippets in “The Part Of Him.” His jittery guitar playing is somewhat more ostentatious, and definitely more distinctive than Neff’s non-pedal steel and slide work; his solo on “Primer Coat” just might be the best in the Truckers’ catalog if you ask me. Great tone, and perfectly melodic. Nailed it.

The other big coming out party on English Oceans isn’t a new guy’s, however – it’s Cooley’s. After making only minimal contributions to DBT’s previous two albums, he busts out in a big way, penning 6 of the album’s 13 songs and, for the first time, singing one of Patterson’s songs. He has more room to contribute here than ever before, since English Oceans is the first DBT album that doesn’t feature a third songwriter. I always thought that was kind of weird, since Patterson both have such strong and distinct voices as songwriters that there’s never been a glaring need for another one. So I guess they were just waiting for Cooley to write enough songs at one time to allow them to put out an album without that third songwriter.

And there’s no doubt that this is Cooley’s album. After all, it’s only the second DBT album to date, after The Dirty South, to start off with a Cooley song – that’s “Shit Shots Count,” which could have easily been the leadoff cut on Sticky Fingers instead of “Brown Sugar” and the album would have been just as great. They even bring in a Bobby Keys-mimicking horn section (!) to play over the outro, which rules, but honestly my favorite part might be the slightly out-of-time rimshot EZB plays before the first chorus, cause it sounds like something Charlie Watts would pull on Exile. (By the way, EZB is the model of efficiency on this album – allegedly he only plays one tom fill on the entire thing. I haven’t found it yet though – I keep intending to listen for it and then get distracted. Can you find it?). Yeah, Cooley nicked the opening riff from the Sex Pistols’ “Holiday In The Sun,” but if that bothers you, well, he came up with the line “Trophy tail wives taking boner pill rides for the price of a happy meal” all by himself, so let’s call it a wash. Cooleyfucius is furthermore out in full force on the also-Stonesy “Hearing Jimmy Loud” (“She had a tanning habit, she’s like a talking leather couch/Warm between the cushions where she hid whatever treasure fell out”) and the galloping, Western-sounding, elliptical admonition of Lee Atwter, “Made Up English Oceans” (“Its no matter if they dress real nice and sit up straight and stupid and say their prayers in quiet ancient tongues/They’re no different than the ones who close their eyes and fall down to the ground and twitch just like their nerves have come undone”). But I think his best effort on English Oceans is the more staid “Primer Coat,” which comes about as close to jangly-sounding as the Truckers ever have and, like all the best DBT songs, imparts a world of wisdom in just a few verses about regular folks just living their lives – in this case, an aging father attempting to cope with his daughter getting married as he ruminates on his own past.

If the intense onslaught of classic Cooley has a downside at all, it’s that it highlights that this may not be Patterson’s most inspired collection of songs. Patterson still seems a little stuck in the songwriting mode that yielded his mellow (and excellent) 2012 solo album Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance, so as a result his contributions are a little more reserved than usual. His only real attempt at a traditional “Truckers rocker” is “When He’s Gone,” which is basically “Lookout Mountain” without the riff (which still amounts to a pretty good song – the guitars bite with menace and the chorus is good).

However, any reservations I might have with two or three of Patterson’s songs here the fact that they’re a bit more laid back than usual – I actually love the Irish hoedown feel of “The Part Of Him,” the vaguely Flaming Lips-y strummer “Hanging On,” and especially the piano-based “When Walter Went Crazy,” which actually sounds like a Heat Lightning outtake. No, believe it or not, I find some of his lyrics to be a bit lacking. See, virtually all DBT songs are about real people living real lives. Not necessarily actual, living people—though many of Patterson and Cooley’s best songs are about people they’ve known—but at the very least, characters we can identify as existing in real life, people we can see our family, our friends, and ourselves in. Like “Primer Coat.” By contrast, “When He’s Gone” and “Hanging On” might be the only two DBT songs I can think of that just feel made up out of thin air. Despite a few nice lines, there’s barely anything distinctive about the characters they portray. The woman in “When He’s Gone” dislikes her husband, and the guy in “Hanging On” “lays around all day.” Whoop-de-do. What’s the point? “The Part Of Him” might be even more disappointing from a lyrical standpoint, since its subject is worse than just some made up guy: a stereotype. Namely, the duplicitous, phony politician (“He was elected, wingnut raised and corn fed/Teabags dragging on the chamber floor”). Again, a few good lines (“He was a piece of work, more or less a total jerk/His own mama called him an SOB”), but Patterson has never stooped to this level of obviousness before. Like, why write this song? To point out that politicians lie and cheat to get votes? Alert the authorities! I mean, compared to, say, “Puttin’ People On The Moon” and some of the other political rhetoric Patterson has penned over the years, it just sounds like child’s play.

Fortunately, Patterson redeems himself for any missteps with the instant DBT classic “Grand Canyon.” Written for DBT’s merch guy and close friend Craig Lieske, who died suddenly of a heart attack in early 2013, it’s the most majestic, touching rock elegy anybody could ask for. I met Craig a couple times before he passed, and even from our few brief conversations, it became obvious that he was one of the most genuinely kind, cool guys I’d ever met. Thus, “Grand Canyon” had a lot to live up to in order to properly honor his memory, but I think it makes the grade. That rising-and-falling rhythm guitar line is the kind of seemingly simple and obvious compositional device that songwriters kick themselves for not thinking of first. Lyrically, it hits all the right notes – sometimes, all that needs to be said is “I’ll lift my glass and smile.” OK, then, I will – cheers, DBT. Here’s to you making yet another great album.


  1. hughes wrote:

    Good review, are you planning to review Patterson’s solo albums?

    By the way, I tried to access your “Dirty South” thesis and instead got linked to ” Dirty South [electronic resource] : Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern rappers who reinvented hip-hop / Ben Westhoff.” Don’t know if the link got changed or what

  2. Jeremy wrote:

    Thanks for the heads up on the link, that should be all squared away now.

    I will probably review Patterson’s (and Cooley’s! And Jason’s! Probably not Shonna’s!) solo albums at some point. When? Could be days. Could be months. Could be decades. Who knows.

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